Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - March 6, 2003

Goodbye, dear neighbor

We all lost a good neighbor last week. Fred Rogers, the man who kids and adults alike knew as the host of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," died of stomach cancer at the age of 74.

He reminded me a bit of my Dad, with his soft-spoken voice and gentle, unhurried demeanor. In this fast-moving, sometimes loud and scary world, Mister Rogers' TV neighborhood provided a slow, quiet, safe place to be. In a way, I think he spoke to the child in all of us.

He always opened his show by walking through the front door of a set decorated to look like a comfy living room. He put on a sweater and tennis shoes to get more comfortable - and to make his audience feel that way, too. And he always sang, "It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor. Would you be mine? Could you be mine?"

Although our girls watched the show, they don't remember much beyond the song and the fact that he changed his clothes at the beginning and ending. I wish they remembered more.

I remember the trolley that took kids to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe and the puppets Mister Rogers used to make his stories come to life. He addressed topics like self-esteem, love, kindness, appreciation and friendship. He also talked about painful subjects like death and divorce, always gently explaining to kids that the bad things that happen in life aren't their fault.

A few years ago when we were returning from Wisconsin, Art tuned into a radio station where a man in his late 20s or early 30s related how as a kid he had once met Mister Rogers. He had written to Fred several times and it never occurred to him that he wouldn't get a response from someone who must certainly be busy. So when Mister Rogers answered his letters, he wasn't surprised. Eventually he asked if he might visit Mister Rogers during his family's summer vacation trip to the East.

He might not have been surprised, but the boy's parents were when a letter arrived detailing how they could get together. The deliveryman on the show, Mr. McFeely, who was in real life Fred's agent, met the family when they arrived in the city and transported them to Fred's summer home where they spent several hours. Looking back, the young man realized just how unusual it had been to have his family treated in such a special way.

But that was a cornerstone of Mister Rogers' philosophy - making sure people know that everyone is special.

After hearing of his death, I read about Mister Rogers' life on the National Public Radio Web site. An ordained Presbyterian minister, he also was a writer and composer as well as a performer and puppeteer. In 2002, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor the nation can bestow.

I listened to one of his interviews on the NPR site - as much as anything to hear his voice again.

"The greatest gift that anyone can give to anyone else - in fact the only unique gift - is to give his or her honest self," he said during the interview.

He emphasized how there are many ways people can show their love. One of those ways is neighborliness. He said it best in his song.

"Let's make the most of this beautiful day. Since we're together we might as well say, 'Would you be mine, could you be mine, Won't you be my neighbor? Won't you please? Won't you please? Please won't you be my neighbor?"

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